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WeatherTalk: Water takes many forms in the atmosphere

If you can see water hanging in the air, it must be made of water droplets or ice crystals, and so is not water vapor.

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FARGO — Humidity is water vapor which is a clear gas. If you can see water hanging in the air, it must be made of water droplets or ice crystals, and so is not water vapor. Steam or mist is made of tiny water droplets. Fog can be made of ice crystals or water droplets.

Sometimes, the water droplets can be supercooled, meaning they are below the freezing point but are not frozen. This happens when the droplets are very tiny and have been unable to crystallize.

When water falls from a cloud, it is precipitation. Liquid precipitation is rain or, if it freezes on impact, freezing rain. If the drops are smaller than half a millimeter across, it is drizzle or freezing drizzle. Frozen precipitation is snow if it is crystallized and sleet if it is chunky. Hail is larger than sleet and is formed in the high tower of a thunderstorm updraft. Finally, graupel, which looks like Dippin’ Dots ice cream, is caused by supercooled water drops freezing onto snowflakes.

Related Topics: WEATHER
John Wheeler is Chief Meteorologist for WDAY, a position he has had since May of 1985. Wheeler grew up in the South, in Louisiana and Alabama, and cites his family's move to the Midwest as important to developing his fascination with weather and climate. Wheeler lived in Wisconsin and Iowa as a teenager. He attended Iowa State University and achieved a B.S. degree in Meteorology in 1984. Wheeler worked about a year at WOI-TV in central Iowa before moving to Fargo and WDAY..
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